A short novel by Edith Wharton
, written in 1916 and published in 1917. At this time she was permanently resident in France and working for the war effort, but it is set in the hills of Massachusetts
, where she had lived and had a love affair
a decade before. It combines the rich, lush
beauty of summer, with intense and ambiguous emotion
, and the pitiful destitution
she saw among the war wounded and refugees.
Charity Royall lives in the tiny village of North Dormer and has seen little else in her life: one visit to a nearby larger town, which to her seemed as wonderful as Boston or New York could be, and an unremembered blackness over her first five years, before she was brought down from the Mountain. The townsfolk of North Dormer are respectable and as virtuous as they can be in such close confines, but the unspeakable Mountain is some great looming evil where a straggling band of outlaws, almost more Morlock than hillbilly, make a precarious living.
The upright lawyer Mr Royall took her away from that and has brought her up almost as his own. He is learned, but has secrets, or perhaps his fondness for drink is not so secret. He called the girl Charity, and now his wife has died she is his only companion. She views him with a mixture of dislike and respect, chooses to stay with him because of his loneliness, but gets him to get her a job as the librarian so that she is making money of her own. In the previous century North Dormer was home to a minor literary figure, and his moulding, tomb-like collection of books now commemorates him.
Here enters Lucius Harney, a handsome young architect from the city, and a cousin of a lady of the village. He is in the district to do a sketching survey of the old Colonial houses of the district. Summer is the story of the slowly blossoming attraction between Harney and Charity.
It is a love story, but with neither happy ending nor tragedy: it is doubt, compromise, unhappiness, bliss, and deception like real love. Edith Wharton conveys the countryside as beautiful, overwhelming, and potent, and she clearly delineates the complex personalities and insufficiencies of each of her characters. There are no archetypes; it is a tale of people who could have been drawn from life. In some ways it represents her own affair, except that the author was highly sophisticated, where Charity knows how provincial and ignorant she is.
The sometime threatening figure of Mr Royall and the almost monstrous inhabitants of the Mountain bring in much darker notes, reminiscent of incest and abuse. Down in the big town, where Charity visits without being drawn in, we glimpse prostitution and abortion. The contrast with this and the luscious height of summer goes through the whole novel.